Wednesday, April 5, 2017

"Loving" and "The Birth of a Nation"

Still catching up. Forgive me for lumping these two together.

Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple at the center of the landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, are the subject of "Loving." Richard was white and Mildred was black and Native American, so their marriage was illegal in the state of Virginia in the 1950s and 1960s due to miscegenation laws. They married nonetheless, and after being ejected from the state, spent many years fighting their way through the courts to have their marriage recognized. All of this is depicted in the film, but the courtroom drama stays mostly in the background. Director Jeff Nichols is more interested in showing the couple as they were for the majority of their lives: quiet, unassuming, and hard-working people just trying to get by.

Played by Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga, the Lovings come across as a pair of very nice people, first and foremost. He's the more reticent one, but fiercely devoted and determined to stand by his marriage. She's very gently the brains of the operation, who plucks up the courage to write to Bobby Kennedy for legal aid, and who eventually becomes more comfortable with the press. Negga is wonderful here, but it's Edgerton who is the impressive one, as Richard has to push himself to accept the help of the lawyers and remains uncomfortable in the spotlight to the end. He never says very much, but there's an appealing steadfastness to his convictions, and a sweetness to his affection. The early scene where he proposes to Mildred is a charmer.

But while I appreciate that Nichols was trying to do right by the Lovings, and trying to avoid all the cliches that come with this kind of material, "Loving" still strikes me as awfully sparse. There are long sequences devoted to watching the couple live out their daily lives, and navigating racial tensions when they arise, all very subtly, carefully done. However, the lawyers, led by Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), are cartoonish by comparison, and come across a little odd. Also, as someone who does enjoy political and legal fiction, I was disappointed that we learned so little about the particulars of the case and its strategy. There were times I wish I was watching a documentary instead of a dramatization. Still, Nichols' filmmaking is very enjoyable, and I'm certainly not going to fault him for telling the kind of story that he tells best.

On to "The Birth of a Nation," which was controversial for all the wrong reasons. The dream project of Nate Parker, who co-wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film, this was predicted to be a major 2016 awards contender and cultural event after its triumphant premiere at Sundance last year. Dramatizing the life of Nat Turner, a black preacher and slave who lead a slave rebellion in 1831, the film is highly ambitious, provocative, and daring, both thematically and from a production standpoint. The title alone seemed to be declaring war on the cinematic establishment. But while it does have some great dramatic moments, and reveals Parker to be a very promising young filmmaker, "The Birth of a Nation" is far from a great piece of cinema.

Initially, the brutal depictions of slavery and plantation life are very impressive, and I enjoyed the unfolding love story between Turner (Nat Parker) and his eventual wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King). However, we're ninety minutes into the two hour film before the rebellion gets underway, and it feels like it's over with in an instant. Instead, Parker takes his time building up Nat Turner into a martyr figure, including a lot of heavy-handed symbolism and increasingly dubious dramatic devices. The main villains are a slave catcher, Raymond Cobb (Jackie Earle Haley) and Nat's initially friendly master Sam (Arnie Hammer) who come across as especially two-dimensional. I resisted comparing "The Birth of a Nation" to "12 Years a Slave," but I appreciate the latter film so much more after watching Parker's well-meaning, but much clumsier handling of this material.

Still, "The Birth of a Nation" is a film that I'm very glad was made, and made in such an uncompromising fashion. We simply do not have enough media in this vein, and as flawed as it is, this movie is a good example of the kind of big stakes, big ideas filmmaking that I want to see more of. Nat Turner's rebellion should have been brought to the screen by a more seasoned director long before this.


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